There was a time, when I was a younger and more foolish man, back when the newspaper industry overran with milk and honey, that I thought Lakeland was likely a whistlestop on my express train to Vanity Fair. When I first started to work here in 1999, I knew almost nothing about our fair city. It wasn’t Palatka. That was enough for the time being, but only for the time being. A year or two here and on we’d go. We even briefly considered living in Lake Wales.
It was Molly McHugh’s and the Polk Theatre that started to change my mind.
Wait, this affordable little city has a really cool Irish bar with Bass and Harp on tap and a refurbished art house theater? And I can walk there from my house or place of work? Hmmmm.
Twelve years later, they are still an enormous part of why we love this city. And they made for an emotional Friday.
Many, many people knew Gerry McHugh better than I did. Like with Bea Reid, another sad, premature loss, I would have to call him a friendly acquaintance. Not quite a friend. And yet, I saw him all the time, mostly shuffling between Molly’s and the Gym. I think the last words we ever exchanged, last week or the week before, were a joke about how it must have pained him to hand out gift certificates to the winners at Trivia Time at the Gym. Gerry was not a man to part happily with a dollar.
But my favorite Gerry memory has nothing to do with business or beer.
His twin daughters, Grace and Katie, are the same age as my daughter. And they played youth sports together for a time. One year they played together on a 6-8 YMCA girls basketball team. Gerry and I were sort of co-assistant coaches. In one game, our undefeated team was playing the other undefeated team. I had a bunch of college friends down for a visit, so the gym was full of energetic early 30-somethings cheering on the action. And this was the best 6-8 year-old girls basketball game you ever saw. Back and forth. We were down 14-8 kind of late in the game when the McHugh girls led a comeback. Steals, fast breaks, hoops. Finally, down two, one the twins made a steal, led a break, and got a pass to my daughter Corinne who made the shot to tie. The place exploded — as much as a place can explode with 60 people in it. But still.
Gerry, who was one of the quietest, most reserved basketball coaches I ever saw, looked over at me with wide eyes and then gave a little fist pump and a punch in the shoulder. It was his way of saying, “How awesome is what our girls just did?”
Anyway, Julie and I stopped by Molly’s Friday afternoon to raise a pint and pay respects. We ran into my friend Craig Morby and Brian Sutherland, whom I was happy to meet for the first time.
They are a big part of the spectacular Johnny Cash show playing tonight at the Polk Theatre for the last time. They are joined by Patrick Fleitz, Sharon Clark, Sara Machinia, and Kimberly Milton. The age ranges, resumes, and backgrounds are so diverse and fascinating that I’m even going to go into them.
Julie and I took Ian, who loves Johnny Cash, to last night’s 7 o’clock show. I’m not going to try to describe to you how creative and fabulously-performed the show is. But understand this, they take Cash’s stuff and make it their own in ways that honor him and enrich the material. Their cover of his cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” is heart-stopping. They really, really need to take this show on the road.
And you need to see it tonight in case they don’t.
Before one of the songs, Craig took a moment to honor Gerry and asked everybody who could to raise a pint in memory. But in many ways, just by being there, they were already doing it.
If Gerry had been sitting there with us, I feel certain he would have given a fist bump and a punch to say, “How awesome is what the people in our city just did.”
That’s what makes a home. Pride, joy, sadness, and loss. Thanks Gerry. You helped make Lakeland home for a lot of people. We’ll miss you.